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How far would agree that the strength of the British government was the main reason for the failure of Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to repeal the Act Of Union?
In the post-emancipation time period, O’Connell was undoubtedly the leading politician in Ireland. He was able to maintain this position over two decades, despite occasional slumps in popularity until his eventual death in May 1847. As a radical, O’Connell believed that good government meant representative government. His political radicalism was reinforced by his position, inside the Catholic majority as an upper-class landed gentry, only enjoying token participation. O’Connell campaigned for “an Irish Parliament, British Connection, one King, two legislatures.” This shows that he was certainly not in favour of complete separation. After all, he was a landlord as unrelenting in his defence of private property rights as in his condemnations of agrarian secret societies. In essence, O’Connell’s Repeal movement simply meant the old system under new and better management.
Yet, for all O’Connell’s social conservatism, no sizeable group in British politics gave any thought for supporting Repeal, or even thought of it as any more than a revolutionary movement. This was because some in the ascendancy simply refused to believe what O’Connell had to say. Radicals and moderate liberals, who had supported him in his emancipation struggle, were also against Repeal. A Parliament in Ireland, no matter how limited, could potentially undermine the Union, as it was believed that it could have given a focus point of loyalty and support for Irishmen.
Unlike in the Catholic Emancipation campaign, all groups were united against Repeal, except O’Connell’s supporters. In this sense, Repeal was doomed to fail from the beginning. Nevertheless, O’Connell embarked on the campaign of Repeal with the same formula as had worked a few years previously, but this time ended with less positive results.
Most of the Irish liberal Protestants who had accepted emancipation withdrew their support at any attempt to disrupt the Union. The Presbyterians of the North became the staunchest defenders of the Union. The middle-class Catholics, whose support was vital to O’Connell in the emancipation movement were in no hurry to plunge into Repeal. They felt that their energies would have been better spent in pressing for reforms in local government, tithes and law enforcement, which was also the attitude shared by most of the Catholic bishops. O’Connell did, in fact, have the support of some of the lower clergy, but frequent exhortations to the priests not to become involved in the politics of Repeal were an acute embarrassment to him, and his demand for the restoration of the 40/- freeholders in the counties was ignored.
The Whig government, in control in the early 1830s, were faced with problems of popular discontent throughout the country. Following various revolts and revolutions throughout all of Europe at this time, from the July Revolution of 1830 in France to the revolts in parts of Germany and Italy, there were many radical voices whose demands were considerably further than what the Whigs were prepared to grant, and this, coupled with popular discontent arising from widespread social distress posed a potentially explosive situation.
However, the government’s response to this was to try to keep Ireland under control by any means necessary. The law and its agents were stretched to the limit. The military and police were used in the implementation of the civil law. Above all, a considerable effort was made to crush the Repeal movement which the Whigs viewed as the biggest threat of all. In early 1831, O’Connell was arrested and a long list of charges were brought against him, although to be later dropped. The Government obviously meant business.
However, the Government’s Irish policy during 1830-32 did not solely consist of a tough line on law and order; there were carrots as well as kicks. A scheme of State-sponsored elementary education was started; the Board of Works was overhauled; an attempt was made in 1832 to solve the tithe question; Ireland was included in the plans for parliamentary reform.
In the reform struggle in parliament, O’Connell’s support was invaluable and the numerical support of his followers indispensible to the Ministry’s survival. Some members of the government realised that it would be better to have O’Connell as a friend rather than a foe. As a result, the Government dropped the charges against O’Connell. O’Connell originally expected the Irish Reform Bill to be a sweeping measure that would strengthen his influence and pave the way for an easier route to Repeal, however, all these expectations were soon disappointed. The Irish Reform Bill proved to be a timid measure. Also, the ‘reformed Parliament’ displayed even less sympathy with Repeal than its predecessor. Alarmed by the soaring crime rates, Parliament passed one of the toughest Coercion Acts of the entire century in early 1833. The Lord Lieutenant had the powers to:
> proclaim districts where no meetings of any sort could be held
> suspend habeas corpus
These powers were initially intended to stay in place for only one year. Even Irish Bishops, English Radicals, Irish Liberals and some Repealers acknowledged the need of some measure to crush crime.
The Coercion Act had two effects. Firstly, it had a considerable effect on law and order in Ireland, but it put shackles on the kind of mass mobilising politics O’Connell had practised in Ireland. When O’Connell raised the question of Repeal in 1834 asking for a House Committee to enquire into the effects of the Union, the motion was defeated by 523 votes to 38 – Repeal was dead.
In spite of parliamentary defeat, O’Connell continued to preach repeal in Ireland but within a year, he had laid it aside for an alliance with the Whigs. The events that led to this was the break-up of the Grey Ministry in the summer of 1834. A new tithe bill had revived the question of appropriating church revenue for secular purposes. Lord John Russell who supported the appropriation, was opposed by Edward Stanley, staunch defender of Church interests and, as a consequence, Stanley left the ministry in June with three of his colleagues. Weakened by this secession, and the impending expiration of the coercion act, Grey resigned and the cabinet was restructured under Melbourne.
With Grey and Stanley out of the way, this paved the way for better relations between O’Connell and the Whigs. In the General Election of 1835, he once again made repeal the main issue, but when the election was over, he was quite ready to help Melbourne and Russell build up a parliamentary majority. An informal understand (‘The Lichfield House Compact’) was reached in March 1835. In the following month, Peel was forced to resign and Melbourne once again became PM with Russell as Home Secretary. In these circumstances, O’Connell hoped for a change in the Whig attitude to Ireland.
O’Connell was, using his words, “testing the Union”. The Whigs were given a chance to prove that the Union could work. If they succeeded, well and good; if they failed, the union must go: “We desire no more, we will not take less: a real effectual union or no union – such is the alternative”.
This alliance was to last for six years. However, the Whigs’ freedom was limited by the heterogeneous character of its majority in the House of Commons, and the House of Lords proved to be an immovable barrier to even the modest proposals for reform. The three best areas for reform during this time were tithe, the Poor Law and Municipal Corporations Acts.
The tithe act that was passed was only supported by O’Connell as he realised that the ministry was too feeble to carry the act on its own and to carry out a more radical reform. The fundamental Roman Catholic complaint, that the church of the minority was supported at the public expense still remained.
Richard Whately, archbishop of Dublin, inquired into the need for a Poor relief system in Ireland. The commission when ready to present their report, were told that the English Poor Law would be extended to Ireland. The commissioners reported that the English ‘workhouse system’ was wholly unsuited to Ireland, that the root of the cause of Irish poverty was the lack of employment and this could be remedied by extensive schemes of public works. These recommendations were hardly even considered. A bill to extend the English Poor Law to Ireland was introduced to the House of Commons in February 1837, and gained Royal ascent in July 1838.
O’Connell at first supported the Government scheme, however, he distrusted the economic principles on which it was based. He feared that the very existence of State relief would weaken the charitable instincts of the people. In the end O’Connell voted against the Bill instead urging State aid for emigration and public works.
After the Municipal Corporations Act of 1840, the Melbourne administration continued for another year, however the death of Drummond removed the guiding spirit of its Irish Administration. Drummond did a great deal for Ireland, but he was not in office long enough to make a permanent change in the character of the administration. His death, rather than Melbourne’s resignation 16 months later, marks the end of a phase in Irish history.
In early 1843 many factors led to a focus on the Repeal movement. Many bishops pledge support for Repeal. Priests throughout the country began to participate in the movement. One key tactic in the campaign was the holding of huge meetings at various places. By the autumn of 1843, O’Connell had worked the country into a fever pitch of excitement. Brinkmanship was used again in opposition to the Tory party who were hesitant over dealing with the Irish situation. However, O’Connell was living dangerously. O’Connells language was becoming increasingly violent. At Mallow, in particular, he had hinted at the threat of physical force if Repeal was refused.
In late 1843, Peel finally decided on his Irish policy – it was a crack-down on agitation, followed by an extensive programme of reform. It was the first of these points which had the most effect on the Repel movement. In October 1843, on the eve of the largest meeting yet, at Clontarf, Peel issued a ban on the meeting and brought in armed troops to prevent it taking place. O’Connell called the meeting off, unwilling to risk bloodshed. His empty threats and brinkmanship was exposed. A week later, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy and later sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and charged with conspiracy.
In conclusion, due to the varying personnel who commanded the British government during this period, it is partially down to the government’s boldness in pushing O’Connell to breaking point. However, it is plausible to assume this secret may have been exposed anyway with government pressure, whether by agrarian violence or violence within the O’Connell movement itself. Above all others, significantly Grey and Stanley, it was Peel’s influence that brought the Repeal movement down. It was also the inexperience of the successors to O’Connell brought down the Repeal agitation, most notably, John O’Connell due to his inability to command the same level of power of the movement as his father had been able to.